1 - 7 A Steward of God
1 Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by [any] human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, [but wait] until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of [men’s] hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. 6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
V1. In the previous chapter Paul strongly emphasized the responsibility of the believers of Corinth. That doesn’t mean, however, that he ignores his own responsibility. He also had a task to fulfill. He was, together with others, a servant of Christ. That means that they were appointed by Him to His service. Therefore they didn’t take that position on their own initiative. He also was, again together with others, a steward of the mysteries of God. A steward is a person who manages a property or affairs of another person. He has to deal with it in a way that the other person will benefit from it.
So the property he received is not his own. He has, as it were, borrowed this property. At a certain moment he will have to give an account to the owner of what he has done with the property that was entrusted to him. And a lot was entrusted to the apostles, namely “the mysteries of God”.
V2. You understand that “trustworthy” is mainly required for somebody to whom such particular things are entrusted. “The mysteries of God” are things that were not known in the Old Testament. They were hidden in God, which means that only God had knowledge of them. But now, after the Lord Jesus had been on earth and had sent the Holy Spirit from heaven to earth, those mysteries are being made known. God has chosen His instruments to make these things known here on earth.
V3-4. Paul dealt seriously with this order. To him there was only one thing important and that was how God thought about his work. It was not important to him how the believers in Corinth or some human institution thought about his ministry. He knew that he was not subject to their control or to any person. It was even so much so that he did not even examine himself. He was so much aware of the thought that only God knew his heart, that he did not form his own judgment on his own ministry. He left the whole judgment to God. If you are able to think like that about your own service, you are free from the influence of people, whether they are believers or unbelievers.
You might think that Paul set himself above other people by this attitude. Couldn’t he make a mistake? Didn’t he need correction? Certainly he could make mistakes and he certainly needed correction at times, as we all do. He doesn’t intend to say that others shouldn’t examine his ministry. The issue is that in his ministry he was not guided by the judgment of others. To him the only One Who was in control, was the Lord.
That is also important to you in your own service to the Lord, for to you also a ‘stewardship’ has been entrusted. In 1 Peter 4 you read that you should minister to others, as a good steward, the gift you have received by grace (1Pet 4:10). When others criticize or comment on that, you should not ignore that. But you should neither adapt yourself just like that, in order to match with those comments. It is important for you to go to the Lord with it. That also goes for your own judgment that you have on your own ministry. Just leave it to the Lord to judge on that.
That doesn’t mean that we must think that we make a mess of everything and do everything wrong. Normally speaking, we are not aware that we are doing anything wrong. When we are aware of that or become aware of doing something wrong, we should correct ourselves. But even if we are not aware of anything, it doesn’t mean that it is good by definition. Once more: leave the judgment to the Lord.
V5. There comes a time that everything we have done, will be brought to light. That has not only to do with what we have done, but especially why we did the things we have done. The motives, the meditations of our hearts, that lead us to do a certain work, will then be revealed.
Is that something to fear for? Yes, when you seek your own honor and when you find it important what people (believers or unbelievers) think and say about your ministry. No, when you seek the honor of God and when you seek to be faithful in serving Him. Paul saw his whole ministry against the background of the coming of the Lord. When He would come, only then everything would become really clear, for only He can make a perfect judgment. Before that time every judgment of the motives that lead someone to serve God, is not a proper issue. “Then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” What is important is that God is the One Who gives the praise.
V6. Paul doesn’t teach the Corinthians a lesson from above. What he has said, he applied to himself and to Apollos. Again this is an important issue. When we want to exhort others through something from the Scripture, we can only expect a good effect, when we ourselves live up to it. Otherwise an exhortation will make no sense. It will not get through. It goes without saying that what we say should really be written in the Scripture. Please note it says: “That in us you may learn not to exceed what is written.” Paul and Apollos showed in their lives what they reprimanded in others. But what they reprimanded was “what is written”. The standard for our own life and the life of fellow believers must be the Scripture. We must not teach others to think as we think, but others should be able to learn in us not to think beyond “what is written”.
V7. When we subject ourselves to the Scripture, we all have the same place. There is no reason to play servants off against each other or to find oneself more important than the other. Every distinction that exists between believers – and that distinction certainly exists! – is made by God Himself. God has made distinctions in the gifts. Each person has received his gift from God. God’s purpose with the distinctions is that we complement one another. When we play these distinctions off against each other, we use the gifts for ourselves and we forget that we received the gifts to minister to one another.
Now read 1 Corinthians 4:1-7 again.
Reflection: Do you already have an idea about which ‘stewardship’ God has entrusted you with?
8 - 13 Fools For Christ’s Sake
8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, [I] wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, [even] until now.
V8. The believers in Corinth made themselves comfortable. Corinth was in those days a prosperous trade city. Also the believers took advantage of that prosperity. They were full and rich. They lacked for nothing. They even had exerted political influences, because Paul says that they had become kings, which means that they had reigned. It seems logical to have a profit when you have a vote in the city government. Then you are at least able to defend your own concern and your own prosperity.
‘But’, Paul says, ‘you have reigned “without us”‘. By that he means that they were too early with reigning. It was not the time yet. The believers will be able to reign when the Lord Jesus returns to establish the Millennial Kingdom. Paul was looking forward to that. He would have been very happy if that was already a reality. Then he and the other apostles, together with the Corinthians, would be able to reign with the Lord Jesus.
V9. That had not happened yet. The Lord Jesus is still a rejected Savior. To everyone who belongs to Him it means that they too are rejected. He has said it: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20). Paul and the other apostles were consistent. They wanted to reign with Christ soon, but they were also ready to suffer with Christ on earth (see also Rom 8:17). That may not be pleasant, but that goes hand in hand with being a Christian.
You can run away from it, as the Corinthians did. You can make yourself comfortable by not showing too clearly that you belong to the Lord Jesus, but then you do not walk in the footsteps of Paul who walked right behind the Lord Jesus. He and the other apostles had chosen for Christ. That meant shame and rejection for life on earth. God gave to those, who had received such a high position in the church – the apostleship was after all the highest gift – the lowest position in the world. In this world they had nothing to be expected anymore in their lives; they were as condemned to death. They accepted this place because God gave them that place.
They “have become a spectacle to the world”. Just imagine that for a while. A spectacle is for the entertainment of spectators. In former days thousands of people filled the tribunes of the Roman arenas to see how those who were condemned to death, tasted their defeat in an unequal battle. In the days of Emperor Nero, Christians were thrown in the arena where hungry lions tore them up, while the tribunes were full of people who were eager for sensationalism.
In the Old Testament we find a history that is an example of a spectacle. It is about the history of Samson. Maybe you have once heard about him; that gigantic strong fellow. Many times he had defeated the arch-enemies of Israel, the Philistines. Unfortunately he gave away the secret of his power, which caused him to lose his power and therefore could be captured (Jdg 16:15-21). Then he had to be present on a celebration party of the Philistines to entertain them (Jdg 16:25). In this way they could ridicule him as much as they wanted, for their pleasure.
It is true that Samson had been made a spectacle through his own mistake, but nevertheless it indicates of how little account someone is, who belongs to God’s people. I once heard about a young Christian from another country, who was called to come forward in the classroom at school. The fellow classmates were encouraged by the teacher to call him names, because of his faith. Such a boy was made a spectacle that others watched with malicious delight. Have you ever been in such a situation that you experienced to be a spectacle?
V10. To be a fool for Christ’s sake is not easy. It certainly is not, when you see other Christians dealing very easily with certain things. Paul makes a comparison between the lives of the apostles and the lives of the Corinthians. He does this to make them feel and become aware of them taking a distance from the true Christian life. He calls himself a fool for Christ’s sake. He calls them wise and strong. After all they had reigned, hadn’t they? When you reign you take the place of someone who is strong, a place above other people. They also had received honor from people. The apostles were despised, however. The apostles wanted very much to stay close to the Lord Jesus. How and Who He was in this world you can read in Isaiah 53 (Isa 53:1-12).
V11. To explain to them what it really means to be a Christian, he describes something about the hardships the apostles had gone through. What he tells them and you and me is not something that would immediately make us envious. It did not happen just only once, just accidentally. No, he writes that they were experiencing those things “to this present hour”. Through their whole life they had to deal with these things.
They had been without food, drink and clothes. This must have made the Corinthians, who were well-fed and well dressed, reflect on that. They were in good condition and the servants of the Lord were in bad condition. Why? Did they supply others, who had much less, out of their prosperity? We may also ask ourselves: Is it possible that a servant of God, who surely has a caring and loving Father in heaven, has to go through such things? Yes! When you live close to the Lord Jesus, that doesn’t mean that you will have a life in which you can live luxuriously. Sometimes you experience the opposite. The care of our Father becomes apparent exactly in the darkest hour. At His time He gives precisely what we need. Such experiences make you express your gratitude even more to the Giver.
Also physical hardships belonged to being a Christian in the view of the apostles. He knew from experience how it felt to be beaten up. In his second letter to the Corinthians he summarizes in the eleventh chapter all kinds of hardships he went through. There he says that he was “beaten times without number” or “beaten more abundant”. For that you must really love your Lord and Savior very much!
They did not have a permanent residence. They were literarily pilgrims, transmigrates. We may have a literal residence, but let’s realize that we do not belong on earth.
V12-13. They were neither unwilling nor too spiritual to work, and not just a bit. They worked so hard that they became very tired. In following Christ we should also be zealous in our daily work. In your daily activities you can expose what it is to be a Christian.
Look at the attitude of the apostles towards the dishonor and evil people did to them. Don’t you see a striking accordance with the reaction of the Lord Jesus towards the dishonor and evil that was done to Him? We often react otherwise. That’s because we are not yet well aware of which position we have in the world. It is a position of “scum” and “dregs”. Worthless material, nothing you can do with, it’s better to throw it away. It can be quite devastating to admit that if you want to reach the high ideals to become somebody in the world. Yes, but Whom do you belong to actually?
Now read 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 again.
Reflection: What is the difference in the spectacle as Samson was and as the apostles were? See also 1Pet 4:14-16.
14 - 21 What Paul Taught
14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet [you would] not [have] many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. 21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
V14-15. The Corinthians must have been very embarrassed at reading the previous verses. There the big contrast was set out for them between their attitude as Christians and the attitude of the apostles. That contrast was not supposed to be. It was not the intention of Paul to embarrass them. He had written to them as a father who sees things in his children which he did not teach them. For he was their father, was he not? After all, he had begotten them through the gospel, had he not?
He calls them “my beloved children”. That means that they heard the gospel through him and accepted it. In that way he became their father and they became his children. Therein we see a family relation. In Paul’s love for the believers in Corinth we see the love of a parent for his children. You may also have somebody like that for whom you are very precious, because through his service you became a Christian. Somebody who takes care of you and ensures that you are doing well spiritually. It is wonderful when there are fathers in faith who are willing to support young believers in their way of faith.
There were many believers in Corinth who didn’t like the ministry of Paul at all. Paul speaks a bit sneeringly about “countless tutors”. By that he means people who were pretending to be instructors for the Corinthians. They thought they were much better than Paul. Their ministry was also quickly accepted by the believers, because they presented a wonderfully comfortable Christian life to them. Wasn’t what Paul presented to them too much to ask?
V16. No, it was not too much to ask. He did not preach them a dry theory. He really lived up to what he preached. Therefore he could exhort them, both out of his ‘fatherhood’ and out of his own life: “Be imitators of me.”
In chapter 11 he says the same, while he adds to it, “just as I also am of Christ” (1Cor 11:1). Paul only asked to imitate him as far as he himself imitated Christ. In that sense you can also imitate somebody who is supporting you spiritually. Therefore the example of older believers is important. Keep looking at them if they imitate Christ. By reading the Bible yourself you will be able to see if the example that they give, is a good example. A good example is given when it is similar to Jesus.
V17. What Paul writes here goes for all churches. It was not so that what he taught in the church in Ephesus was different from what he taught in the church in Colossae. Indeed he had spoken about different things in different places. But what he taught in Ephesus and Colossae was not in contradiction with what he had taught in Corinth. He didn’t just say things to and fro. He was a man you could rely on. He was not inconsistent with his teachings.
The reason of divisions in Christianity is exactly because the Bible is continually explained differently. All of Paul’s letters and actually the whole Bible, form a unity. The explanation of the Bible is not subject to changes. That would be a mess.
Again Paul could point at his example. His ways were “ways which are in Christ”, which means that his words and deeds were as Christ meant them to be. To show them that it was not just a personal view, he sent Timothy to them. From him they would hear exactly the same things. The way Paul operated, matched thoroughly with Christ. Not only his teachings were in accordance with Christ, but also the way he walked to make known these teachings. He didn’t use nice words or craftiness to win the believers over to his view. For him it was all because of Christ and His honor in the church. And because there is just one church, he taught the same everywhere.
It is important for you to understand this well. You may hear the complaint sometime, that everybody explains the Bible differently. This is often used as a reason not to be occupied with the Bible. And when you do not read the Bible, you can just go on living without listening to any reason or command of the Bible. Do not tolerate such arguments in yourself. The only condition to be able to understand what the Bible says is: to be ready to do what the Bible says.
Just read what is said in John 7. There the Lord Jesus says: “If anyone is willing to do His [i.e. God’s] will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or [whether] I speak from Myself” (Jn 7:17). Just learn this verse by heart. This verse means that obeying the will of God is the condition to understand God’s Word. Only when you are prepared to obey, you will be able to discover if a certain explanation of a Bible section is an explanation of man or that the explanation reflects God’s intention.
You should realize well that Paul says these things with the view to the churches, for he speaks about “every church”. There is only one church that consists of all true believers. But, as you saw in the first verses of chapter 1, there is also a church in every place on earth, where believers live (1Cor 1:1-3). That church consists of all the believers who dwell in that place. What Paul writes now to the believers of a certain place, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, therefore also applies to the believers who dwell in other places. He ignores that believers are separated from each other by all kinds of walls that they themselves have built. In those days the walls were not there yet, but they are now. He who wants to listen to this word of Paul, which is from God Himself, will have to take down that wall or leave.
V18-19. Some people thought that Paul didn’t dare to come personally and therefore sent Timothy. That was not true. If the Lord wanted that, he would come. And then he wouldn’t listen to those braggarts. Their words had no content; they missed the power of God and therefore had no effect. You live in a world where a lot is being said, but how many words really have power and have an effect? The reality is that many promises are being made and nothing or only a little is being given of what is promised.
V20. “The kingdom of God” is not in talk. In the kingdom of God the issue is life, wherein the power of God becomes visible. It is a realm where you now belong and wherein you can show that the Lord Jesus is your Lord. By just simply listening to Him and doing what He says, His power in your life will become visible.
V21. How did Paul have to come to them? They could say it themselves. Did he have to come with a rod? That would have happened if they didn’t listen to his exhortation to imitate him. (Yes, at times it is necessary to use firm talk. That is absolutely not in contrast with love. This is also how God deals with His children. In Hebrews 12 chastisement by the Lord is called a proof of love, Heb 12:6.) Or was it possible to come with love and a spirit of gentleness?
He hoped for the latter, for that would mean that they regretted their wrong attitude. His letter would then have had the effect that he was longing for. They would then be focused on Christ again, both in their personal lives and in their life as a church. If he would then come, he would keep on helping them in love and gentleness.
Now read 1 Corinthians 4:14-21 again.
Reflection: You must know Christians who are an example for you. Just examine why they are your example. Besides, think of what Paul has said.